A new study finds that recent life events can influence depressive symptoms differently in adolescent girls, depending on how the brain responds to winning and losing.
The findings, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, suggest that a strong brain response to winning boosts the beneficial impact of positive experiences on symptoms, whereas a strong response to losing intensifies the detrimental impact of negative experiences on symptoms.
“This finding helps refine our understanding of how two types of known risk factors for depression, life events exposure and neural response to wins and losses, might interact to influence depression,” said first author Katherine Luking, PhD, of Stony Brook University, New York.
The associations found between brain response, impact of daily experiences, and depressive symptoms suggest that brain function may determine how life experiences contribute to risk for and protection against depressive symptoms.
“This study is novel in that we go beyond negative events to investigate the unique effects of both positive and negative life events on depressive symptoms during a vulnerable time in development, early adolescence,” said Luking.
The study involved adolescent girls (ages 8 to 14) who completed a task in which they could win or lose money. The researchers found that girls with a stronger brain response to winning showed a relationship between positive life events dependent on their behavior — such as making a new friend — and reduced depressive symptoms.
According to Luking, this means that “girls whose brains are more responsive to winning are better able to reap the benefits of the positive experiences that they create in their own lives.”
On the other hand, girls with a strong response to loss demonstrated a link between negative life events independent of their behavior — such as experiencing a natural disaster — and increased depressive symptoms.
This suggests that “girls whose brains are more responsive to losing are more vulnerable to the effects of negative events, particularly those beyond their control,” said Luking.
“These results provide a window into how mechanisms in the brain might be targeted to modify the effects of positive and negative experiences on the moods of girls during a critical developmental period in their lives,” said Cameron Carter, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
The findings suggest that cognitive approaches designed to enhance responses to winning or reduce responses to losing may help strengthen the effect of positive experiences or lower the harmful effect of negative experiences. In turn, modifying the effects of these experiences could help protect against or reduce the risk for depression.